Elon Musk, new lord of techno-feudalism

Elon Musk had good reason to feel so frustrated that he bought Twitter for $44 billion. He pioneered online payments, disrupted the automotive industry and space travel, and even experimented with ambitious brain-computer interfaces. However, if his cutting-edge technological exploits have made him the richest entrepreneur in the world, this had not until then allowed him to enter the club of the new ruling class: those who draw their influence from algorithmic power. .

Since the dawn of capitalism, power derives from the possession of capital goods (steam engines, industrial robots, etc.). Today, it is cloud-based capital – or cloud capital in English – that gives its owners powers hitherto unimaginable.

Miracles of “cloud capital”

Take the example of Amazon, with its network of software, hardware, and warehouses, and its Alexa device, sitting on our kitchen counter. It is a cloud-based system capable of probing our emotions more deeply than any advertiser. His bespoke experiments tap into our biases to produce answers, then continually refine those through reinforcement learning algorithms.

Unlike old-fashioned “analog” capital, which boils down to product means to make the things consumers want, cloud capital functions as a product means to change our behavior to suit the interests of its owners. In doing so, he performs multiple simultaneous miracles.

The first miracle of cloud capital is to make us work for free to increase its stock and productivity with every text, comment, photo or video we create and upload using its interfaces. In this way, he has turned hundreds of millions of us into “cloud-serfs”: unpaid producers, working on the digital domains of owners and believing, like peasants under feudalism, that our “labour” ( creating and sharing photos and opinions) is part of our personality.

The second miracle is the ability of cloud capital to sell us the object of the desires it has helped to arouse in us. Amazon, Alibaba and their many e-commerce imitators in every country can look, to the untrained eye, like monopoly marketplaces. But they have nothing of a market, not even a hypercapitalist digital market. Even on monopolies, people can interact reasonably freely. On the other hand, once you enter a platform like Amazon, the algorithm isolates you from all other buyers and only gives you the information that its owners want you to have. Buyers cannot talk to each other or organize to force a seller to reduce his price or improve his quality. The sellers, too, are in a one-to-one relationship with the algorithm and must pay its owner to complete a trade. Everything is mediated not by a disinterested “invisible hand”, but by an equally invisible algorithm that works for a single person or a single company, in what is, in effect, a “cloud” fiefdom.

Musk is perhaps the only tech lord to have watched helplessly as this new techno-feudalism triumphantly marched from behind the scenes. His car company Tesla is smartly using the cloud to turn its cars into nodes of a digital network that generates big data and connects drivers to its systems; while SpaceX and its slew of low-orbiting satellites are contributing significantly to the development of other tycoons’ capital cloud. But unfortunately for the enfant terrible of the business world, Musk himself did not have direct access to this eldorado. Twitter should now be its gateway.

“Universal app”

Immediately after taking the reins of the company and proclaiming himself “Chief Twit”, the billionaire affirmed his commitment to preserving the platform as a “public place” where everything and anything can be debated. This clever tactic helped divert public attention from an endless global debate over whether the world should hand over its main discussion forum to a tycoon who has a habit of tampering with the truth on that same forum. .

While liberal commentators (in the American sense of the term) worry about Donald Trump’s reinstatement on the platform, the left about the rise of a digital Rupert Murdoch, and anyone with any decency laments treatment of Twitter employees, Musk seems to be keeping his eyes on the ball: in a revealing tweet, he confessed his ambition to make Twitter a “universal app”.

Such an application is, in my view, nothing less than a gateway to cloud capital that allows its owner to alter consumer behavior, extract free labor from users turned into “cloud-serfs” and , last but not least, to charge vendors a form of “cloud rent”. Until now, Musk hasn’t owned anything capable of evolving into a “universal app” and had no way to create one from scratch. Indeed, while it was busy finding a way to make electric cars desirable and profit from the conquest of space, Amazon, Google, Alibaba, Facebook… wrapped their tentacles tightly around platforms and… interfaces presenting the potential of a “universal application”. However, only one of this type was available for sale.

Elon Musk’s challenge now is to enhance Twitter’s capital cloud and connect it to its existing big data network, while constantly enriching that network with data collected by its other products. Assuming he manages to calm the slingshot among his remaining employees, his next task will be to weed out the bots and trolls so that the new Twitter knows the identity of its users and owns them.

In a letter to advertisers, Musk rightly pointed out that irrelevant ads are spam, but relevant ads are content. In these techno-feudal times, that means messages that can’t change behavior are spam, but those that influence what people think and do are the only content that matters: real power.

As a private fiefdom, Twitter can never be the “public square” of the world. That was never the goal. For Musk, the relevant question is whether owning Twitter will be enough for him to become a full member of the new techno-feudal ruling class.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.


Member of Parliament, former Minister of Finance of Greece (2015) and Professor of Economics at the University of Athens.

Elon Musk had good reason to feel so frustrated that he bought Twitter for $44 billion. He pioneered online payments, disrupted the automotive industry and space travel, and even experimented with ambitious brain-computer interfaces. Yet while his cutting-edge technological exploits have made him the most…

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